An Iranian woman and her son walk past ballistic missiles on display in front of a large portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in south Tehran. Photo Credit: Atta Kenare, Agence Free Presse/Getty Images
By: Doug Livermore, Columnist
Photo by: Getty Images
Though the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – colloquially known as the Iran nuclear deal – is an imperfect agreement, continued adherence by all signatories is still the best opportunity to block Tehran’s immediate pathways to developing a viable nuclear weapon. Moreover, continued adherence to the JCPOA also creates opportunities to pressure the Iranian regime domestically, counter its destabilizing activities across the Middle East, and encourage renegotiation of the agreement. It is in the best interests of the United States to sustain the JCPOA, while seeking other avenues to influence Tehran’s malignant behavior.
The U.S. signed the JCPOA in July 2015 with Iran, Germany, the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China), and the European Union. In the agreement, Iran agreed to halt its nuclear weapon development program, suspend efforts to “mate” such weapons to ballistic missiles, and submit to extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Additionally, Iran surrendered most of its weapons-grade nuclear materials, modified existing nuclear facilities, and eliminated equipment necessary to produce more weapons-grade nuclear materials.[i] Iran had already removed the nuclear core of its only heavy water reactor at Arak in 2016, ahead of its conversion in 2019 — a redesign intended to eliminate the facility’s ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium.[ii] In return, Iran received limited relief from economic sanctions and restored diplomatic relations with many of the deal’s signatories.
The JCPOA is a “non-binding political commitment,” not a treaty approved by Congress or an executive agreement. This means that any American president can choose to simply walk away from the deal at any time.[iii] Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump railed against the JCPOA, vowing to completely abandon the agreement should he win the election.[iv] President Trump refused to certify Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA in October 2017, yet has not officially withdrawn the U.S. from the agreement.[v] Yet much of the Trump Administration’s aversion to the JCPOA stems less from Iran’s actual nuclear program than from the regime’s other destabilizing activities that the agreement never sought to address. In announcing his decision to decertify the JCPOA, Trump bemoaned Iran’s continued support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Houthi rebels fighting against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and violent proxy forces and terrorist groups throughout the region.[vi]
The JCPOA, however, has achieved its intended purpose: halting Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions. The director of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, reported in October 2017 that Iran was dutifully adhering to the JCPOA, while subjecting itself to “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.”[vii] In recent months, particularly since the installation of the anti-Iran John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor, the Trump Administration has escalated its rhetoric threatening to walk away from the JCPOA.[viii] Though it is possible that this rhetoric is just the newest manifestation of President Trump’s unorthodox negotiating style, the stakes are incredibly high given the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran in what is already one of the world’s most volatile regions. Recently, a bipartisan group of national security professionals urged President Trump to remain in the JCPOA, arguing that this is the only way the U.S. can retain its reputation as a credible partner, strengthen its negotiating position on discussions related to North Korea’s nuclear program, or hope to eventually renegotiate the JCPOA.[ix]
If President Trump chooses to unilaterally abandon the JCPOA and tries to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran, the repercussions would be catastrophic for both U.S. interests and regional stability. Such a move would reinforce the message of Iranian hardliners, who have railed against the JCPOA, accusing the U.S. of failing to fulfill its own obligations under the agreement.[x] Abandoning the accord, despite broad consensus that Iran has adhered to its part of the deal, would only further support the hardliner’s message. If the U.S. withdraws from the JCPOA, Iranian opposition groups, which the revolutionary regime has repeatedly struggled against in recent years, would lose influence.
Moreover, it is unlikely that the U.S. could convince the other JCPOA signatories to reimpose comprehensive sanctions on Tehran. Several other signatories have stated that they believe that Iran is compliant with the agreement and have indicated their intention to comply with their own obligations under JCPOA.[xi] Whatever sanctions regime the U.S. might be able to reimpose after exiting the JCPOA would be far weaker than that which brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.
Finally, if the U.S. were to walk away from the JCPOA, the Iranian regime would almost certainly restart its own nuclear weapons program. Given the already elevated tensions across the region, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the result could be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Saudi government, seeking to hedge its bets against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, approached Pakistan to explore options for jump-starting its own nuclear weapons program.[xii] If the U.S. unilaterally abandons the JCPOA, Iran would have few incentives to restrict its nuclear weapons program. It would also eliminate any pressure points that the U.S. can leverage to address the Iranian regime’s other destabilizing activities in the region.
The JCPOA allows the U.S. and the international community to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons program in isolation from the rest of the thorny issues associated with Tehran’s regime. With the agreement firmly in place, the U.S. should aggressively work to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. As the Syrian civil war enters its final phases, Iran has shifted much of its attention toward establishing military staging areas within the country for future attacks against Israel.[xiii] Closer cooperation between Washington and Tel Aviv, through intelligence sharing and other operational support, would better enable Israel to engage in preventative attacks against Iranian forces, such as the April 2018 airstrike on Syria’s Tiyas Airfield.[xiv] Iran has also exerted significant influence in Iraq, where it leverages its critical support to the majority of the so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMF) to marginalize Sunnis and advance Tehran’s political objectives.[xv] With the threat of the Islamic State greatly diminished in Iraq, the Iranians are seeking to employ the PMF as a “fifth column” in the upcoming national elections to install pro-Iran politicians into office.[xvi] U.S. efforts to bolster Baghdad’s legitimate government and counter Iranian influence would hinder Tehran’s attempt to establish a “Shiite Crescent” – a sphere of influence spanning from Iran through Iraq to Syria.[xvii]
Iran’s continued support of Houthi rebels in Yemen is a point of increasing regional and international consternation, as these rebels have used advanced ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, and even remote-controlled explosive boats provided by Iran to attack major Saudi cities and to threaten ships in the Red Sea.[xviii] More aggressive efforts to interdict Iran’s shipments of advanced weapons to the Houthi rebels would raise the cost of Iranian intervention and encourage a negotiated settlement to the conflict. With the JCPOA sustained, the U.S. would be able to increase pressure on Tehran over its other destabilizing activities throughout the region without giving Iran an excuse to restart its nuclear weapons program. Finally, the only way that the U.S. can credibly initiate renegotiation of the JCPOA, another option proposed by President Trump, would be for Washington to remain in the agreement and cooperate with the other signatories.[xix] By recertifying and adhering to the JCPOA, the U.S. can put the most pressure on Iran, combat Tehran’s destabilizing activities in isolation from its nuclear program, and incentivize renegotiation of the current agreement.
[i] George Perkovich et al., “Parsing the Iran Deal”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 8, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/08/06/parsing-iran-deal/iec5.
[ii] Ankit Panda, “With Arak Reactor Core Filled, ‘Implementation Day’ of the Iran Deal Approaches,” The Diplomat, January 12, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/01/with-arak-reactor-core-filled-implementation-day-of-the-iran-deal-approaches/.
[iii] Duncan Hollis, “Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement,” Opinio Juris, March 11, 2015, http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/11/dealing-with-iran-a-primer-on-the-presidents-options-for-a-nuclear-agreement/.
[iv] Eric Lorber, “President Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal,” Foreign Policy, November 16, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/16/president-trump-and-the-iran-nuclear-deal/.
[v] Mark Landler and David Sanger, “Trump Disavows Nuclear Deal, but Doesn’t Scrap It,” The New York Times, October 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/us/politics/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html.
[vi] Serafin Gomez, Mike Emanuel and Perry Chiaramonte, “Trump decertifies Iran nuclear deal, slaps sanctions on IRGC in broadside at ‘radical regime’,” Fox News, October 13, 2017, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/10/13/trump-to-decertify-iran-nuclear-deal.html.
[vii] “Statement by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano,” International Atomic Energy Agency, October 13, 2017, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/statements/statement-by-iaea-director-general-yukiya-amano-13-october-2017.
[viii] Michael Birnbaum, Anna Fifield and Loveday Morris, “The return of John Bolton, a hawk on North Korea and Iran, sparks concerns around the world,” The Washington Post, March 23, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/south-korea-worries-about-the-return-of-john-bolton-and-his-hawkish-views/2018/03/23/4adc68aa-2e6c-11e8-911f-ca7f68bff0fc_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a9316fda4ddc.
[ix] Zachary Cohen, “National security veterans urge Trump not to scrap Iran nuclear deal,” CNN, March 27, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/27/politics/experts-trump-iran-nuclear-letter/index.html.
[x] Ali Arouzi, “Why Scrapping Nuclear Deal May Embolden Iran’s Hardliners: Analysis,” April 20, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/why-scrapping-nuclear-deal-may-embolden-iran-s-hardliners-analysis-n748746.
[xi] Robin Emmott and John Irish, “EU to meet Iran to back nuclear deal in message to Trump,” Reuters, January 10, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-eu/eu-to-meet-iran-to-back-nuclear-deal-in-message-to-trump-idUSKBN1EZ1VZ.
[xii] David Sanger, “Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability,” The New York Times, May 13, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-promises-to-match-iran-in-nuclear-capability.html.
[xiii] James Phillips, “Iran’s Intensifying War with Israel,” The National Interest, February 21, 2018, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/irans-intensifying-war-israel-24592.
[xiv] “Syria conflict: Israel blamed for attack on airfield,” BBC, April 9, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43694588.
[xvi] Rhys Dubin, “Iraq’s Militias Set Their Sights on Political Power,” Foreign Policy, January 30, 2018, http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/30/iraqs-militias-are-setting-their-sights-on-power/.
[xvii] Carlo Muñoz, “Iran nears completion of ‘Shiite Crescent’ across Middle East; land bridge to pose U.S. challenges,” The Washington Times, December 5, 2017, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/dec/5/irans-shiite-crescent-across-middle-east-nearly-bu/.
[xviii] Eric Pelofsky and Jeremy Vaughan, “Addressing Iranian Weapons Smuggling and the Humanitarian Situation in Yemen,” The Washington Institute, July 11, 2017, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/addressing-iranian-weapons-smuggling-and-the-humanitarian-situation-in-yeme.
[xix] Interview with Paul Pillar, “Pillar: Iran could negotiate if US fulfills JCPOA obligations,” Persian Digest, March 3, 2018, http://persiadigest.com/Pillar-Iran-could-negotiate-if-US-fulfills-JCPOA-obligations.
Doug Livermore works in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence) as an operational advisor as well as serving as a Special Forces officer with Special Operations Detachment-NATO in the Maryland Army National Guard. In addition to multiple combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Doug led special operations elements during sensitive contingency operations across Africa. He is a West Point graduate currently pursuing his master’s degree full time through Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed in this article do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense or any other part of the US Government.